Resisting reality no way to address pregnancy issues

November 27, 2006|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- Perhaps President Bush believes the ultraconservative political operatives who claim the GOP lost its majority because the party didn't move far enough to the right. Or perhaps the president just has no use for moderate politics or bipartisan compromise.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Bush continued his dogged resistance to reality - and the conventions of the 21st century - several days ago when he gave the job of overseeing federally funded family planning programs to Dr. Eric Keroack. The new head of the Office of Population Affairs not only opposes abortions but also birth control. Mr. Keroack was the longtime medical director of the Massachusetts-based pregnancy counseling center, A Woman's Concern, which holds that dispensing contraceptives is "demeaning to women."

Although 14 Democratic senators sent a letter protesting the appointment, it's unlikely Mr. Bush will change his mind. The position does not require Senate confirmation.

Nevertheless, the antediluvian forces that want to keep women barefoot and pregnant are losing the battle. The stars are finally aligned for a common-sense consensus to encourage the use of contraceptives.

With a victory for moderation in the midterm elections, and with laissez-faire conservatives out West walking (running, actually) away from busybody fundamentalists in the Deep South, Congress can plot a course on which Western Europe set out a long time ago: discouraging abortions by encouraging birth control. A federally supported campaign to encourage contraceptive use would do more to reduce the abortion rate than two decades of conservative initiatives to overturn Roe v. Wade - all the inflammatory political campaigns, rants against federal judges and attacks on abortion clinics combined.

While the United States has about 53 births per 1,000 teenagers, a rate worse than India's and Rwanda's, Great Britain has about 20 babies per 1,000 adolescents. Germany and Norway have around 11; Finland, eight; Sweden and Denmark, seven; the Netherlands, five. The difference? Western Europe has little of the hyper-moralism that subverts rationale discourse about sex, so that contraceptives are advertised, displayed, dispensed and widely used.

In this country, by contrast, President Bush has given appointments to ultraconservatives who tried to block over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive known as the "morning after" pill; railed against a vaccine that would protect against the sexually transmitted virus HPV, which is the leading cause of cervical cancer; and funded abstinence-only programs that do not prevent teen pregnancies.

The newly empowered Democratic majority - especially those in its ranks who oppose abortion - should quickly join forces with Republican moderates to put an end to those benighted policies. They can start by supporting the work of the Government Accountability Office, which has found that federally funded abstinence-only programs spread disinformation to adolescents. Among other things, some programs have taught teens that condoms are too "porous" to stop transmission of HIV.

Not so. Research has shown repeatedly that proper use of condoms is quite effective in stopping the spread of the virus that causes AIDS. The nonpartisan GAO has pointed out that the Department of Health and Human Services has violated federal law, which requires taxpayer funds be spent only on programs dispensing information that is "medically correct."

The larger problem with abstinence-only programs, of course, is that they don't prevent teens from having sex. While many other recipients of federal grants are required to show that their programs are effective, Health and Human Services exempted abstinence-only programs from that requirement. The result is that teens who choose to have sex have little information about preventing pregnancy or disease.

Should adolescents be taught to abstain from sex? Absolutely, just as they should be taught to abstain from alcoholic beverages. But smart parents don't want to push their children into a dangerous corner, ashamed to admit irresponsible behavior but lacking support for ameliorating the damage. That's why so many parents, having told their teenagers not to drink, add the lifesaving admonition: If you do drink, don't drive. Call home, and we'll pick you up. Similarly, savvy parents and teachers would urge teens not to have sex - but if you do, use a condom.

It's high time for that sort of common sense to find its way back into public policy.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

Steve Chapman's column will return Wednesday.

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